Maricopa County AZ Dec 5 2016 Maricopa County will lay off most of its armed guards and only replace a fraction of them, while supplementing protection with an unarmed private security force starting Jan. 8.
County officials tout a roughly $1 million estimated savings per year, lower risk and a new focus on strategic planning. But one rank-and-file officer worries the move will leave long-term employees jobless and hurt the quality of security under pressure to cut costs. The move comes 20 years after the county beefed up its operations in the wake of an assassination attempt on a county supervisor.
The county plans to reduce its nearly 75-position Protective Services Department of armed guards to a staff of 42.
The new force will be made up of 17 armed Maricopa County employees, joined by 25 unarmed guards contracted through Phoenix-based Blackstone Security Services Inc.
Private guards will take over metal-detector screenings at the entrances of buildings, while county guards will stay in charge of security for elected officials, patrols, video-camera monitoring and management of a command center, Deputy County Manager Reid Spaulding said.
Spaulding said the transition will not compromise safety at the county.
But not all Maricopa County security personnel support the move.
The cuts have decimated morale and left guards scrambling to find work, said Capt. Denny Merrel, a Protective Services manager who is applying for jobs elsewhere. He also said county security guards regularly stop people with weapons, and an unarmed private security force will be less of a deterrent to people wishing to do harm.
"It really shows a lack of respect for employees that have dedicated their lives for the last couple of decades to protecting the county. After all that, the county is not interested in protecting them," Merrel said. "I hope that’s not a reflection of new values that the county has, but my suspicion is that it is. They're more interested in cutting spending and not as interested in quality services."
Spaulding added that the cost savings will come through a smaller force and the fact the county will no longer provide health care and retirement benefits to the private officers. Other local governments, such as Pima County and the city of Phoenix, also use private security.
Armed staffers who remain on the county payroll will receive raises of about $2 per hour. They will make between $15.37 and $22.06 an hour. Blackstone guards will earn $14.48 per hour.
The job descriptions for the remaining county officers, who are not sworn like sheriff's deputies, have been rewritten to include situational awareness, de-escalation skills and customer-service skills, Spaulding said. He said many staffers have found other jobs or retired since the plan was announced this summer. Others have reapplied to keep their county security jobs and will be notified next week.
"We need more people focused on situational awareness," Spaulding said. "It's one thing to just stand there and screen packages — and I'm not demeaning that function — but I think we need to raise the bar of our in-house security system by having people do more tabletop security exercises with other law-enforcement agencies.
"I wanted to see a group that elevated their understanding and skill set when it comes to scenario-playing and situational awareness and recognize something before it becomes something," he continued. "I don't think we had a good handle on that."
Fewer armed guards will not jeopardize security, Spaulding said, because they will be placed strategically and can be supplemented with additional armed private guards if necessary. He added that in some cases, having unarmed guards may reduce the county's liability.
"With every armed officer there is a risk that that officer doesn't have the skill set or doesn't have the training to know not to shoot first and ask questions later," he said. "We've all seen on the news where maybe a shooting wasn't justified."
Merrel, the Protective Services manager, said the reduction in security is another another example of the county saving money at the expense of public service. He noted the chaotic presidential-preference election in March, in which the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved a plan by the Recorder's Office to run the election "as cheap as humans can do it," leading to massive voter lines. Supervisors in recent years have promoted a leaner approach to government.
The board approved the Blackstone security contract 3-1 in November, with Supervisor Steve Gallardo dissenting and Chairman Clint Hickman absent.
Merrel, who has worked in security for 20 years with four of those years at the county, said Spaulding's argument about improving skills doesn't hold water.
County officers already are highly trained, in some areas exceeding standards of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, and collaborate with outside agencies on tabletop exercises, said Merrel, who is certified to lead the force's de-escalation classes.
"That’s nothing new," he said. And "situational awareness — that’s a 2008 Homeland Security initiative. I think (the federal agency) would be surprised to find that the white paper they wrote on situational awareness is being used as a justification for cut-rate services."